India has long been a favourite destination for retired foreigners who wish to explore its many mysteries (but usually end up exploring its not-so-many toilets). So it should come as no surprise that Oprah Winfrey visited us recently. For those of you who live under a rock, or have Tata Sky, Oprah is a world-famous chat-show host, businesswoman, philanthropist, and woman of substance. And no, that’s not a fat joke. Okay, so it is now.
The resultant travelogue that aired on TV was fun, but to be honest, I saw some more entertaining things that day, such as the phonebook, or the Meru Cab on-hold music, or “Understanding Avagadro’s Constant: A Physics Class in Twelve Parts for CBSE”. Another thing that was way more entertaining than the episode itself was the outrage that followed it. India was pissed off. “Shallow stereotypes!” we cried, furious. “More patronising American condescension!” we screamed, outraged. “WHY ARE THEY USING BIG WORDS LIKE ‘condescension’?” Rahul Gandhi asked, confused.
So Oprah Winfrey saw a slum, the Taj Mahal, Amitabh Bachchan, and AR Rahman (who she kept calling “Ramen”, like the noodles). And this infuriated us, because apparently it is indicative of ignorance, and shows us in a poor light. That’s right. Damn you woman. What gives you the right to storm into my country and film slums? And Amitabh Bachchan? And the Taj Mahal? Who do you think you are? Danny Boyle? Did you not read the visa clause that says that you may only exploit our stereotypes if you can promise us a tenuous connection to the Oscars and the most overrated soundtrack in cinematic history?
But I too am outraged. Outraged at the fact that she called Abhishek and Aishwarya India’s Brad and Angelina. I’m pretty certain Brad and Angie can act. What I’m really outraged at though, is the fact that giving a crap about what Oprah Winfrey says is somehow a priority for us. This is a woman who takes relationship advice from Doctor Phil, a guy who looks like, (but has less medical credentials than) Doctor Dang. A guy who showed up with a camera crew at the hospital Britney Spears was in after a failed suicide attempt. A guy who doesn’t even know that unless you’re a rapper or a stripper, you need a last name for a plausible pretense at professionalism. Worse still, she takes spiritual advice from Deepak Chopra, who says things like “I would like a quantum entanglement of charred carbohydrate particles of existential tomfoolery with a smear of processed bovine essence soaked in tears of metaphysical torment” every time he orders toast.
What were you expecting from someone whose idea of subtle is handing out cars to everybody who came to her show? A nuanced take on India’s geopolitical significance? And more importantly, in an era where Time magazine has publicly labeled our PM (and by extension, in case you hadn’t noticed, our country) as “The Underachiever”, in a country where a group of men molested a woman on camera, in a day where we’re finding ex-Olympians doing menial labour, explain to me how and why you have the time or the energy to give a flying f**k about what Oprah Winfrey thinks of Dharavi?
How about instead we just shut up, smile, and send her a thank-you note, for lulling foreigners with gentle images of slum-bonhomie instead of shocking them with communal violence in Assam? How about a relieved wink instead, for the soothing sight of a rich Marwadi matriarch and her docile daughter-in-law, in place of questions about why India has the lowest ranking in women’s safety among all G20 nations? How about a box of chocolates for the great PR lie she told on our behalf? The one that suggests we’re still an odd kitschy curiosity, instead of showing people things that’ll have them scrambling to drop a dome over our heads to seal us off?
Luckily, I have a five-step program to help you deal with your anger:
1) Think about how this African-American woman has treated your India.
2) Get really angry.
3) Go to Colaba.
4) Observe how your India treats anything African.
5) Shut up, go home, get over yourself.
Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo. You can also contact him on www.facebook.com/therohanjoshi